As the sun prepared to rise the next morning, Peter looked over the brief list of pending orders. It grew shorter every day. He needed to send his apprentice, Charlie, out to check on previous customers. There might be enough repairs or new orders to keep business steady a few more weeks.
Peter stepped into the kitchen and soon sat down with eggs, jam, and toast. His sister must have come early. The room was spotless, his dishes washed from the night before. She had even done so without waking him with her usual clattering and loud muttering. Returning to the shop floor, he noticed the primrose resting on the teller’s counter. A band of sunlight pushed through the shades, illuminating the flower. It seemed to lean toward the sun, soaking in the morning light. His sister must have moved the flower so the pink-hue of its broad petals might add a touch of color to the room.
“Well, you do look nice today,” Peter said to the flower as he dusted off the counter. “The shop’s looking better than usual.”
Soon his two workers, William and Caleb, entered. William gave a bright, “Hello,” while Caleb only gave a nod and a grunt. They both climbed down the ladder and into the basement workshop, just as they had every morning for fifteen years. Peter was often sure Caleb continued working more from habit than loyalty.
Peter was opening the shades when Charlie came sprinting in.
“Not my fault I’m late,” the young man said. “Had to get the little brats in line for Mother. What’s a fellow to do with all those brothers and sisters whining at him as he’s trying to make a living? You understand, don’t you?”
“It’s all right,” Peter said as he opened the last shade. “Just stay a bit late tonight.”
Charlie slapped Peter’s shoulder. “You’re a swell fellow, you are, Mr. Talbot.”
Peter restrained a sigh. His father would have bellowed at the boy, giving a speech about having respect for the trade. Whenever Peter thought of getting mad, however, he saw the hollow cheeks of Charlie’s younger siblings. They were healthier now that Charlie was employed, and Peter could not send Charlie off and let those children starve.
He unlocked the door and stood at the counter, waiting to greet any morning customers. Charlie busied himself with swatting flies as the morning wore on. Peter was sifting through the ledger when the bell rang, announcing a customer. He looked up as Mr. Rompell, Adeline Winkleston’s guardian, entered.
Where his adopted daughter was light and airy, Rompell was a tall Sandarian, his skin still tanned from the deserts of his homeland. He always had the best appearance, his thick dark hair combed with polish, his suits tailored to his firm, lean build. He and his daughter made a handsome pair when they walked arm in arm. Peter smoothed his own thinning hair as he looked up at the man. How could Peter have thought to take the arm of such a man’s daughter? This Nathaniel Bronhart was probably a better match.
Rompell set a pair of cracked boots on the counter. With a smile, he said, “Mr. Talbot, you have worked miracles with my shoes before, have you not?”
Peter turned the boots over. One’s sole was split and the other’s toe was wearing thin. “We can repair them, but it’ll cost as much to make new ones.”
Rompell tapped his gloved hands on the counter. “Your father gave me these when I first came to Pippington, when I had nothing.” He smoothed his trimmed goatee before glancing at Peter. “I suppose, however, we must let go of things, now and then.”
Peter set down the shoes as worn as the beggar Rompell had been years before. Rompell’s coat had been patched and threadbare, his scarf moth-eaten, his pants stained and ill-fit. The man had worked hard to improve his station, and now was a middle class landlord. If Rompell could rise so far, Peter could hold onto his shop.
“You’ve been a good customer a long time,” Peter said. “I’ll repair them, half-price.”
Rompell flexed his fingers before turning over his hand, revealing a few coins. Peter smiled. He always enjoyed Rompell’s little magic tricks and sleight-of-hand games.
“I can afford many things now.” Rompell’s eyebrow arched up. “Even a daughter’s wedding. I’ll pay full price for some new boots. It will help me keep up appearances of being a respectable gentleman.”
Peter smiled, though he tried to forget his own faint hopes of Adeline’s affection. “We’ll get you set.”
While Peter filled in the order sheet, Rompell leaned against the counter. He frowned as he picked up the primrose. With the blossom level to his face, he rotated it and sniffed it. “This is a peculiar flower, Mr. Talbot. Where did you acquire such a delicate thing?”
“The meadow heading toward Craggsville,” Peter said.
Rompell set it down and ran his thumb along one of the petals. “What drew you to this one?”
“Well… I…” Peter rubbed his nose before admitting, “It looked lonely, out with all those daffodils. And… um… it brightens up the shop, doesn’t it?” He gave a false smile.
Pulling his hand away, Rompell said, “It is a rare beauty. Do be careful with it.”
“I’ll be sure to.”
Rompell set his hat on his head and looked to Peter. “Will the shoes take the usual amount of time?”
“Only a week or so.”
“Business has been so slow?”
Peter shrugged. “It’s a bright, warm day. Most folks don’t worry about their shoes on days like this.”
Peter smiled, hoping to believe the lie himself.
“I’ll see if I can persuade my future son-in-law to pay a visit.” Rompell began to step toward the door, but stopped to reach in his pocket. “I nearly forgot.” He set down a canvas bag and opened it. Pulling out a small sphere wrapped in wax paper, he said, “You asked for some smoke snaps, to show your nephew.”
Rompell tossed it toward the shop floor. Peter jumped as a plume of yellow smoke and sparks rose up before dissipating.
Peter grinned as he tucked the canvas bag under the counter. His sisters hated the snaps, but their anger was worth watching his nephew’s eyes light up when the smoke and sparks rose up. “How much do I owe you?”
Rompell waved his hand. “Consider it a tip for your good service. I’ll bring more next week when I pick up the shoes.”
Rompell turned to the front door, when John Havish blustered in, carrying a load of new leather to deliver. The broad man stank of chemicals and animal fat as he slapped the pile down on Peter’s counter. Peter grabbed the primrose before it could be knocked off.
“Good day, Mr. Talbot, Mr. Havish,” Rompell said as he moved to step around Havish. However, the tanner reached out, grabbed Rompell’s hand, and gave it a firm shake.
“Congratulations, Mr. Rompell!” Havish said. “I’ve heard Mr. Bronhart’s a right good sort. I’m sure your daughter’ll be quite happy.”
“Congratulate me when the wedding is complete.” Rompell grinned and slapped Havish’s shoulder before heading out.
As the door shut, Havish said, “I remember when Miss Winkleston and my daughter Evelyn were school girls together. The girl was just a skinny little mite, and now look at her. She’s a real, fine lady. This Bronhart better be as good a fellow as folks say.”
Peter set the primrose on the shelf behind him and began checking the slabs of leather.
“How about you, Talbot? You find any nice girls to jaunt about with? It’ll probably help you now that Bronhart’s taken. Been too many doe-eyed glances in his direction. My Evelyn’s seein’ a good fellow herself, but I could have her invite a friend or two over for dinner, give you a chance to meet some nice girls and get out of the shop.”
“Oh… I…” Peter looked out the window. “I’ve too much to do here.”
Havish raised his eyebrow as he scratched his thick beard. “Seems quiet.”
“Nothing unusual,” Peter said.
Havish leaned on his pile of leather as he watched people pass the shop. “Look at them goin’ by, with those factory-made shoes. I went and tried some, see what all the fuss was about. May as well drop a hammer on my toes. Felt shamed, really.” He turned back to Peter. “How’s it been on your business?”
Peter glanced at the ledgers, avoiding the knot trying to form in his stomach. “There’s a few less boots going out, but we’re getting a good number of repairs off the factory shoes.”
He’d rather not admit there was barely enough in the till to pay for the week’s wages and this set of leather. Beside the factory eating away at his business, many of his father’s customers had died recently. Dead men did not come in for new boots.
Havish pulled on his beard as he eyed Peter. “You’re a good fellow, Talbot, just like your pops. I’d hate to see your shop on hard times.”
“We get by,” Peter said.
With a grunt, Havish hefted a bright blue skin with strange markings from the middle of the pile. It gleamed, reflecting the dim light, a beauty in its strangeness.
“Got ‘em from a man passin’ through. Says it’s griffin. Had Calman double-check it. This here’s the real thing. Don’t find beauts like this often.”
“It’s a fine piece. Would be wasted on the shoes I make,” Peter said, checking the quality of the other skins. Maybe the blue leather would help build business, but Peter could not afford to try. Caleb had a wife to take care of now, William helped support his sister and her drunkard of a husband, and Charlie had his widowed mother and five siblings to help. Any funds had to go to them first.
“And good, sturdy shoes,” Havish said. “I’ve had mine for ten years. Best boots in town, and at a good price, Talbot, but you’ll never be able to compete with the price of boots comin’ off the factory line. They’re undercuttin’ all the shoemakers in town.
“I told your pops for years that the real money’s with those rich folks. A fine lady will buy six pairs of shoes in one go, and never wear ‘em. I’ve been selling finds like this skin to Cordwainer up on the North End for years. His shoes are made for lookin’, not for wearin’. He gave me one pair for my wife to thank me for a flap of dragon skin. She tried them on and said it was like gettin’ her foot pinched between rocks. Went on to throw them at my boy when he got out of line, and the shoes are fallin’ apart just from that.
“Now, if you got a shop up on the North End, and made boots half as pretty as Cordwainer’s, I’d bet you could put that swine out of business. I only sell to him ‘cause I can gouge the prices.”
“If I were to make shoes like that,” Peter said. “How would the rich ever see them?”
Havish raised a fat finger. “It only takes one customer, Talbot. One rich girl to see your shoes, and then go squealin’ about ‘em to all her friends.”
“I don’t know how to make fancy shoes,” Peter said. “Just good, sturdy ones.”
“You’re a bright fellow. You’d figure it out.”
“I really can’t afford it, Havish.”
Havish leaned back and mopped the constant layer of sweat off his forehead. He slapped the counter. “Talbot, you’re a bleedin’ heart, and I’m tryin’ to help you out. Everyone around here knows you pay Charlie three times more than he’s worth, and you sacrifice your own wages to pay Caleb and William, even if Caleb is an ungrateful wretch who—”
“He’s my employee.”
“Come on, Talbot. You keep him on ‘cause you’re a nice bloke. I’ve heard him down at McBriar’s, blowin’ on about how miserable he is here, and how he’s a better business mind. And you keep this fellow on? I’d grab him by the belt and toss him down the street.”
Havish tucked his thumbs in his pockets. “Tell you what, Talbot. You can’t afford it right now, so pay me back once you’ve made a pair of shoes and sold ‘em.”
“No, please, Havish… I couldn’t.”
“It’s only a loan, Talbot, and I’m insistin’.”
Peter ran his hand over the leather as he found himself nodding. Havish punched his shoulder.
“You just wait and see, Talbot. I’m sure the shoes’ll be a wonder.”